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Walls v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

July 27, 2016

BRYANT WALLS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Eyler, Deborah S., Arthur, Kenney, James A., III Retired, Specially Assigned JJ.

          OPINION

          Eyler, Deborah S., J.

         A jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County convicted Bryant Walls, the appellant, of two counts of first degree murder and one count of first degree burglary. The court sentenced him to two consecutive life terms for murder and a concurrent ten year term for burglary. He noted an appeal, presenting five questions, which we have combined and rephrased as four:

I. Did the trial court err by denying his motion for a mistrial based upon the prosecutor's remark during opening statement that the jurors would hear the appellant "testify"?
II. Did the trial court err by declining to give his requested jury instructions on the crime of burglary and by its answers to questions from the jury about that crime?
III. Did the trial court err by admitting a recording of a telephone call that he made from the Baltimore County Detention Center?
IV. Did the trial court err by denying his motion to dismiss the charges against him or to exclude the testimony of two State's witnesses as a sanction for alleged prosecutorial misconduct?

         For the following reasons, we shall affirm the judgments of the circuit court.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Just after 2 a.m. on December 2, 2012, Walls killed Okemia Walls ("Okemia"), his estranged wife, and William Cunningham, her boyfriend. The charges against him were tried to a jury over five days in May 2014. The State's theory of prosecution was that the murders were willful, deliberate, and premeditated, and were committed in the course of a first degree burglary. Walls did not dispute his criminal agency, but took the position that he had killed the victims without premeditation or deliberation, and in hot-blooded response to legally adequate provocation, thereby mitigating the crimes to voluntary manslaughter. He disputed that he had the requisite intent to commit first degree burglary. We summarize the relevant evidence adduced at trial.

         Walls and Okemia had known each other for 23 years and had been married for 7 years. They had no children together, but each had adult children from prior relationships.

         At the beginning of 2012, Walls and Okemia were living at 24 Venus Court, a two-story townhouse in the Northbrooke Township development in Parkville. Okemia's daughter, Meishon Moore, was the lessee of the townhouse and lived there as well. Venus Court is comprised of three groupings of townhouses configured in a U with a parking lot in the center.

         Sometime in the spring or summer of 2012, Walls and Okemia separated. Walls moved in with his brother, Rick Walls ("Rick"), and Rick's wife, Angela Walls ("Angela"), in their home in Joppa, Harford County. According to Moore, Walls took all of his belongings with him, did not retain a key to 24 Venus Court, and did not have permission to be in the home thereafter.[1]

         Cherod Hicks was living in an apartment at 1 Venus Court with his roommate, Whitney Franklin. Hicks and Franklin were friends with Walls and Okemia. Around 7 p.m. on December 1, 2012, Hicks called Walls and told him that a friend had attended a gathering at 24 Venus Court that day and had observed Okemia with a male companion. Upon hearing this, Walls got pretty "upset" and said, "This is why I wanted to be finished with her." He asked Hicks to come pick him up. Hicks agreed, but later changed his mind. He fell asleep and awoke around midnight. His cell phone showed 15 missed calls from Walls. He did not call him back.

         Meanwhile, at 11 p.m., Okemia, Cunningham, Moore, and Moore's boyfriend left 24 Venus Court and went to a local bar. Around 1:15 a.m. (by now December 2, 2012), Okemia and Cunningham returned to 24 Venus Court.

         Moore and her boyfriend stayed at the bar until 1:30 a.m. They drove to pick up some food and then returned to 24 Venus Court. Moore, who was behind the wheel, pulled into the parking lot between the townhouses around 2 a.m. She saw Walls crossing the parking lot, walking toward her car. She opened her window and asked him what he was doing there. Walls was sweating and appeared angry. He replied that "he had to get that nigga" or that he had to "kill that nigga." Moore closed her window and drove away in a panic. She pulled around the corner and parked. She called Okemia's cell phone, but there was no answer. She then called Cunningham's cell phone, but that call also went unanswered. She called 911.

         Shortly thereafter, Deanna Hunter, who was living at 30 Solar Circle, one street over from Venus Court, heard loud voices outside. She looked out her window and saw a man "pinn[ing]" a woman against an SUV and stabbing her with a knife. The woman fell to the pavement. Hunter heard the man say, "I told you I was gonna get you" as he was stabbing the woman. She called 911. While on the phone with the 911 operator, Hunter saw the perpetrator walk away. She went outside to render aid to the victim. She told the 911 operator that the woman was on her stomach, was bleeding profusely, and there was a "knife broken off in her back."

         Meanwhile, Moore had driven back into the parking lot on Venus Court. She noticed that the front door of 24 Venus Court was wide open. She jumped out of her car and ran toward her townhouse. Walls was sitting on the outdoor air conditioning unit for the neighboring townhome. He said, "Mi, your mother is dead. I killed them both."

         Moore ran inside the house and found Cunningham lying on the floor in the master bedroom "bleeding to death." She could not find her mother.

         Moore's next door neighbor, Dawn Green, came outside. Green, who is a retired police detective, had been awakened by a loud thud, some faint screaming, and the sound of footsteps next door. She then heard someone knocking on the door of a nearby townhouse, later determined to be 30 Venus Court. She heard a female voice say, "Who is it, " and a male voice reply, "Bubbles." (Walls's nickname is Bubbles.) The female voice asked, "Well, what do you want?" The male voice replied, "I just killed M[ami], " which was the nickname Walls used for Okemia.

         Green retrieved her gun and police badge, and told her husband to call 911. She ran next door and, finding the door open, went inside and called out for Okemia. No one answered. She went upstairs and found Cunningham lying on the bedroom floor bleeding from the upper torso. He was still alive but could not speak. She told him she would get help.

         Green ran back outside and saw Walls sitting on an air conditioning unit. She asked him where Okemia was and he replied, "I killed her." Green displayed her gun and identified herself as a police officer. Walls took off running in the direction of Solar Circle. Green pursued him and yelled that she would shoot if he didn't stop. He exclaimed, "It's me. I did it. I did it. Don't shoot."

         By then, Baltimore County Police Department ("BCPD") Officers Conrad Butler and Daniel Burns had arrived at Solar Circle. They found Okemia, partially clothed and lying face down on the pavement, with "horrific injuries on her back." A "tip of a piece of metal" was sticking out of her spine. Officer Burns recognized it as the base of a knife blade that had broken off. A black knife handle was found in the grass by her arm. The officers immediately observed Walls running toward them, hands in the air, with Green in pursuit. Walls was shouting, "I did it. I did it." The officers yelled for Walls to get on the ground. He complied and they placed him under arrest. His hands were covered in "wet, dripping blood."

         Walls began to cry. He told the officers that the woman on the ground was his wife. He said he had found her in bed with another man. Indicating with his head toward 24 Venus Court, he said he had "left another one up there." Officer Butler entered 24 Venus Court and found Cunningham's body. Cunningham and Okemia were pronounced dead at the scene.

         A BCPD crime technician photographed damage to the front door, doorframe, and casing at 24 Venus Court, as well as a muddy shoe print on the outside of the door. She also photographed blood smears on the door of 30 Venus Court.

         At trial, a video recording of an oral statement Walls gave to the police on December 2, 2012, was played for the jury. In the statement, Walls said he and Okemia had been reconciling and were planning to buy a house together. They had gone to the Siesta Motel on November 29, 2012, where they had sex. While they were there, Okemia received a call on her cell phone from a contact labeled "my baby." Walls answered Okemia's cell phone, and a man was on the line. Walls became angry and accused Okemia of cheating on him. She denied that she and the other man were romantically involved.

         According to Walls, on December 1, 2012, he called Hicks and said he was going to come by his house (at 1 Venus Court) later that night to give Franklin some money to take to Okemia. Around 1:45 a.m. (on December 2, 2012), Walls hailed a "hack" cab in Joppa and was dropped off near an elementary school next to the Northbrooke Township development. From there, he walked toward 1 Venus Court. As he passed directly behind 24 Venus Court, he looked up at the second floor of the townhouse and saw Okemia and Cunningham through the window of the master bedroom. The room was illuminated by a television set. Okemia was naked and "hugging up" against Cunningham.

         Walls recounted that he walked around to the front of the townhouses, where he encountered Moore. She drove up and asked him what he was doing there. He replied that he had come to see his wife. Moore said he should leave. She drove away. Walls walked up to 24 Venus Court, kicked in the door, grabbed a chef's knife he saw on the kitchen table, and went upstairs. When he entered the master bedroom, Cunningham saw him and "came at him." He and Cunningham "tussled" on the bed and he began "swinging the knife." He did not know how many times he stabbed Cunningham. Okemia ran out of the room, and Walls ran after her. When he caught up with her outside, he grabbed her by the shoulder. She "got aggressive" and he "started swinging" the knife at her. The knife eventually broke. He thought it might still be inside her. After Okemia fell to the ground, he called 911 on his cell phone. He walked back to Venus Court and knocked on the door to 30 Venus Court. He told the neighbor that he had killed Okemia.

         During his statement, Walls was distraught. He said the whole incident resulted from Okemia's "playing games with [his] emotions" and that he "couldn't deal with it." Several times he asked the police if Okemia was dead.

         On December 4, 2012, the police executed a search warrant at the home in Joppa where Walls had been living with his brother and sister-in-law. On the kitchen counter, they found a butcher block containing knives with black handles. The largest knife was missing. They photographed the butcher block and seized one of the other knives. The photographs and the knife were introduced into evidence at trial, as was the knife handle found near Okemia's body.

         During a jail visit with his sister, Walls admitted that he had taken a knife with him to 24 Venus Court on the night in question. A recording of this conversation was played for the jury. Subsequently, in a recorded jail phone call, Walls told his daughter that he was carrying a knife in the early morning hours of December 2, 2012, in case he encountered any "wild animals" while walking to 1 Venus Court. A recording of that call also was played for the jury.

         The autopsy reports document that Okemia was stabbed eighteen times and sustained seven cutting injuries on her back, chest, arms, hips, hands, and face. A knife blade measuring eight and three-eighths inches was embedded in her back on the right side. Cunningham was stabbed ten times and sustained seven cutting injuries to his back, shoulder, abdomen, arms, and hands.

         In his case, Walls called eight witnesses. His sister-in-law, Angela, testified that he had moved in with her and her husband in July of 2012, but had continued to see Okemia regularly. Two BCPD police officers testified that they had responded to the scene of the crimes on December 2, 2012, and had heard Walls admit to killing Okemia and Cunningham. The officer who transported Walls to the police station that night testified that Walls "began to cry and shake hysterically" while in the police car. Yet another BCPD police officer testified that he had observed blood stains on the door to 30 Venus Court. A private investigator testified that he had confirmed that Okemia had registered at the Siesta Motel on November 29, 2012.

         We shall include additional facts in our discussion of the issues.

         DISCUSSION

         I.

         Opening Statement

         (a)

         In opening statement, the prosecutor gave the following description of Walls's pursuit of Okemia after she ran out of 24 Venus Court:

Okemia runs out of the apartment down the steps. This is 2:00 a.m. on December 2nd, early December of 2012. She runs down the steps and she makes it to approximately this area, you'll hear testimony that's about 30 Solar Circle. This is the area where she ends up in front of 30 Solar Circle. She's running for her life. Ultimately, he catches her. You'll hear him testify that he just started swinging the knife.

(Emphasis added.)

         Immediately after the prosecutor finished his opening, defense counsel asked to approach the bench and the following ensued:

[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Your Honor, I'm very concerned about one thing that [the prosecutor] said, and I know he didn't do it intentionally.
THE COURT: It was a misspeak.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: It was a misspeak -
THE COURT: I know it was.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: -- but it was a really serious misspeak.
THE COURT: I know it was.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: What he said was, "You will hear him testify, " in reference to [Walls]. I'm gonna have to ask for a mistrial based on that. That is a basic right [Walls] has not to testify.
THE COURT: I know. It was an inadvertent choice of words.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: I know you didn't know -
[PROSECUTOR]: I was referring to what he said in his statement.
THE COURT: You were referring to his statement, and instead of saying, ["]You will hear in the statement, ["] you said, "You will hear him testify." I'm denying the request for the mistrial. I would be happy to grant a curative instruction. They were told yesterday both in voir dire, and I think in my opening instructions no burden.[2] I understand your objection -
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: I can't say a curative instruction would come close to remedying it. If you give a curative instruction, you're highlighting it, and then that would be disastrous.
THE COURT: I will not highlight it. What I will do if you'd like, and you can talk to [Walls] about this over lunch, I would before we start with testimony remind them of certain things and give a burden of proof instruction and no duty on Defense to put on any testimony in evidence and never any obligation for [Walls] to testify, and I would highlight those instructions at the beginning of the case, and then we'll renew them at the end. So, if you would like me to do that, I'll be happy to do that. If you choose to just leave it alone, I'll leave it alone, but I don't think a one-word misspeak in the middle of an opening gives rise to a basis for mistrial. So, you want -
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: My request would be a mistrial.

(Emphasis added.)

         Defense counsel then gave her opening statement. She did not mention the prosecutor's misstatement or otherwise comment on whether Walls would testify. At the conclusion of her opening statement, the parties again approached the bench:

[PROSECUTOR]: Your Honor, the State's position is that a curative instruction will suffice if [Walls] plans to testify. We are mindful of the Court's time, we are loathed [sic] to waste the Court's time in terms of the time we've spent during the trial up to this moment. If the Defense can't say at this point in the proceedings whether or not [Walls is] going to testify -
THE COURT: I mean, but the problem is and I believe it to have been just a ...

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